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In Russia, cold is a matter of degree

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Just weeks ago, Muscovites were suffering through an unseasonably warm winter. They were feeling your pain, Washington, and it was brutal.

Much of Russia spends more than half the year in wintry conditions. Boots go on in October and come off in April. Gym class at school means cross-country skiing in the nearest park. A well-cared-for baby requires frequent outings in the coldest temperatures. There’s nothing like fresh air.

It’s no accident that pelmeni, frozen dumplings, are a cherished national dish, created by Siberian travelers who could carry the foodstuff for weeks across icy terrain. At day’s end they could build a fire, melt a pot of snow and throw the pelmeni into the boiling water for a hot and nourishing dinner.

So a warmish December in Moscow was a real koshmar, a total nightmare, an affront to the national image and imagination. It seemed to rain more than it snowed. Fishermen complained bitterly about thin ice at their favorite fishing holes. The only reliable outdoor skating in Moscow was at Gorky Park, where long pathways were kept frozen by an expensive new underground cooling system. Shockingly, it was possible to venture outdoors hatless without risking a scolding by the elderly women who enforce common sense.

The record-setting temperatures — it got up to 39.4 degrees Dec. 27, the warmest for that day in 113 years — proved as short-lived as a winter’s day, however. (In December it wasn’t getting light until about 10 a.m.) Inevitably, real Russian winter arrived. Now life is normal, with snow on the ground, limb-threatening ice on the sidewalks and the thermometer dancing a mercurial jig around the zero mark.

Russians couldn’t be more satisfied, and we foreigners in the capital are trying to keep a stiff upper lip. Actually, that’s not so hard. A lip stays nicely frozen in place as your scarf traps your breath and turns it to ice.

If real winter sounds enticing, don’t forget that old cautionary saying, Washington: Be careful what you wish for.

The high-pressure system that finally brought the cold here has been pushing the frigid air westward, through Ukraine and on into Western Europe. Italy reported its coldest week in 17 years, and Rome got its first serious snow since 1987, paralyzing the city. In Ukraine, more than 100 people have died, most of them homeless. And in Russia, 64 died from the cold during January.

Ukrainian authorities sounded impatient with citizenry showing weakness in the face of mere weather. Viktor Baloga, the country’s emergencies minister, told his countrymen to deal with it by running five to six miles every morning and taking a bath in cold water every day.

“Take active exercise and work,” he admonished.

Russians in general are well prepared for the cold and accept it as a normal state of affairs. One winter when I was flying with a friend out of Moscow, we asked a flight attendant whether the airplane would be de-iced.

“Don’t worry,” she reassured us. “As soon as we get up a little speed the ice will fall right off.”

Washington area schoolchildren longing for snow days will not envy their Russian counterparts. I can’t find any record of school in Moscow being called off for snow, though the city gets an average of 50 inches a year. Crews are out cleaning up the snow and dumping it in the river as fast as it falls, and snow-closing announcements of any kind are unknown on television and radio.

Last weekend, Moscow had two big demonstrations — about 120,000 people marched and stood for about three hours to protest against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and another 20,000 stood outside to support him. The temperature hovered around zero. No one, it seemed, thought to stay home simply because of the weather.

Gennady Onishchenko, head of the Federal Service for Surveillance of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Well-Being, known as Rospotrebnadzor, did, however, warn demonstrators that they should get out their grandmothers’ felt boots, known as valenki, for the occasion.

Valenki were traditionally worn by peasants, and perhaps Onishchenko, a staunch Putin supporter, thought that he could scare off hipster marchers with the threat of a fashion faux pas. Ah, but duded-up valenki, trimmed in insouciant colors, can now be found in chic city stores. No need to look dowdy on the barricades.

If it gets cold — that would be 13 below here — primary schools are allowed to close. Generally in winter, kindergarten children are taken outside at least three times a day, for a total of four hours, although that can be shortened if the temperature is around zero and the wind is blowing at more than 18 miles an hour.

Of course, Russians have their own secret defenses in the war against cold, which I stumbled upon once during a visit to Archangel, a city just below the Arctic Circle.

The wind was whistling through my room because of a poorly insulated window, and I complained to the desk clerk, expecting him to issue me an extra blanket. He stared at me, contemptuous of my cluelessness.

“Drink some vodka,” he hissed.

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